Almost everything could be printed in turn-of-the-century newspapers except vulgar words, and high on that forbidden wordlist was “abortion.” Search all of the digitized 1909 California papers and you’ll find the a-word only ten times, and then just referring to terminated pregnancy in farm animals. At the same time, editors needed to write about women having abortions because newspapers obsessively covered crime stories, and at the time anyone who performed an abortion was charged with second-degree murder. Thus a vocabulary of euphemisms was born: It was the “criminal operation” or the “malpractice,” sometimes a “treatment.” Thus readers of the Santa Rosa Republican learned that a San Francisco doctor had performed “the operation” that resulted in the death of a local girl, 18 year-old Leora Henderson.
Abortion was far more common in America 100+ years ago than it is today, thanks in great part to the 1873 Comstock Act (no relation to Santa Rosa’s Comstock family), which was a federal law outlawing use of the mails to send contraceptives or information about contraception. Although there are no national surveys for this time period, medical experts have estimated that between one-sixth and one-third of all pregnancies were terminated. While looking through the Register of Deaths for Santa Rosa for possible 1906 earthquake victims, I stumbled across a young woman who died of self-induced abortion just a few weeks after the quake – unusual only because abortions were almost always secretly performed by a physician or midwife. As far is known, none of the local medics performed abortions but it is statistically likely that one or more did.*
Miss Henderson probably found her abortionist through San Francisco newspaper classifieds. The “Medical” column in the SF Call was almost entirely advertisements from “ladies’ specialists” including Dr. West, whose ad read, “Ladies’ specialist and women’s friend for many years. Immediate relief for the most obstinate cases at one visit. No pain, no delay from home. Low fees.” Why she picked him is unknown; others claimed to be cheap or guaranteed “instant relief.” Maybe she liked the promise that there would be “no delay from home,” which sounded like a quick turnaround. Informed of her death, her parents, who had a farm near Santa Rosa, said they didn’t realize she had even gone to San Francisco (or for that matter, was pregnant).
The inquest found Leora complained of pains in her sides and Dr. West referred her to another doctor, with instructions to go to a particular hospital if she worsened. He called a Doctor Boyd and said he should expect to see her at the hospital, “but it was nothing serious.” Boyd was called out of town for the day and forgot, but late that night the head nurse at the hospital contacted him about the case. Dr. Boyd said he would check on her in the morning. By morning she had died of peritonitis.
The coroner’s jury found that yes, “a criminal operation caused death,” yet made no charges against Dr. West. And that was that.
Without knowing more, it’s unclear what conclusions we can draw from the jury’s decision. It appears they narrowly held that she died of medical complications, ignoring that the event leading to her death was considered murder in the eyes of the law. Maybe the jury (all male, as all juries were at the time) viewed death following abortion as a woman’s misfortune, the same as death following childbirth.
From an article in the SF Call the following year, we do know even when “malpractitioners” were prosecuted, just one in four was convicted. Judging by the San Francisco newspapers, it seems that the only time that abortion doctors risked facing jail time is when patients died in their office and they went to great lengths to make sure they weren’t caught with the corpus delicti.
Warning: What follows is not for the squeamish.
A few months after Miss Henderson died, 24 year-old Eva Swan sought an abortion from Dr. James Grant. (In a bizarre coincidence, Grant’s San Francisco office used to belong to Dr. West, who had recently moved his practice to a better location downtown.) In the days that followed, Eva became gravely ill and Grant took care of her at his home. When she fell unconscious Dr. Grant realized she would not live, and after she died ten days later he was prepared to act. He sawed off her legs to fit the body into a trunk, poured gallons of acid over the remains, and hauled it to a house he had rented for the purpose of burying her in the basement. There’s much more to the whole story that you can read here, but as you can imagine, every new revelation in this horrific tale made front page headlines. Such great public outrage was spurred that it was even proposed that abortionists could be prosecuted under the Comstock Act, apparently because they advertised in newspapers which were mailed to distant subscribers. Yet despite the strength of the prosecution’s case, Doctor Grant still got off with a twenty year sentence, of which he served nine.
Incredibly, the Eva Swan case was not unprecedented. Seventeen years before, another San Francisco abortion doctor sawed up the body of a patient who died under his care. And in a Ripley’s Believe-it-or-Not twist, the man charged with that murder was none other than Dr. West.
Dr. West went on trial two years later, in 1895. (Trial coverage in the San Francisco Call was quite good for its day.) His defense was that he had not performed an abortion on Addie Gilmour, but had only been asked to look after her by another doctor (who denied it under oath). She died a week later. While strolling down to the Coroner’s office to report her death, West met with Dr. Tuchler who suggested medical students would pay a good price for a female cadaver. Dr. West testified he agreed and when he returned to his office the body was gone. The judge instructed the jury that they were only to decide on whether Dr. West had performed an abortion on the woman. In less than an hour the jury returned a verdict of not guilty.
It might have gone differently, however, if Dr. Tuchler had testified; afterwards, he told reporters that he had been called out of town on a medical emergency and wanted to tell the court he believed West was innocent, but he was now angry because West had lied about his role in the matter. According to Tuchler, West dismembered the body and packed sections of it in oil cans which the two of them dropped into San Francisco Bay on the ferry to Oakland. Anatomy students did that all the time to dispose of dissected body parts, Tuchler said. For his role in the dumping, Tuchler asked for Gilmour’s head, the skull of which would complete a skeleton he was assembling. Dr. Tuchler wrapped her head in chicken wire and hung it underwater near Sausalito, telling reporters it was also the custom of anatomy students to leave body parts in the Bay like that to reduce them to bones. Unfortunately for him the encaged head was prematurely found, causing understandable commotion.
Today, West and Grant would probably be prosecuted for murder with depraved indifference. Both hid seriously ill women in their backrooms, not consulting with specialists or seeking a higher quality of care as their condition worsened. While waiting for the women to slowly die, they plotted how to chop ’em up and throw away their parts. They were furtive men; Dr. West said at his 1895 trial that he disguised himself sometimes and it came out that Grant’s real name was Robert Thompson. How typical were they of the army of male “ladies’ specialists” that practiced abortion medicine at the time? That history’s unwritten. (An overview of abortion in turn-of-the-century America can be read on-line: “When Abortion Was a Crime“.)
As for Dr. Grant/Thompson, he moved to Boston when he was paroled and started another abortion practice, this time under the alias “Stanton A. Hudson.” In 1911 Dr. West was again in jail because of a botched abortion and yet again escaped charges (that young woman sought help at an emergency hospital and lived).
Leora E. Henderson’s parents buried her in the Rural Cemetery, adding an inscription to her tombstone: “Budded on earth to bloom in her soul.” I’m not sure what that means, but it certainly sounds very nice.
*It is possible that Madam Preston, who made and sold all manner of nostrums, offered an under-the-counter abortifacient. Among the Preston papers is a 1907 letter from the wife of a Sebastopol farmer who wrote, “I’ve heard you have a preparation that is good to cause a miscarriage…”
DOCTORS ARRESTEDComplicated in Death of Miss Leora G. Henderson
Dr. E. S. West and Dr. Winfield Bynres of San Francisco are under arrest in that city for their complicity in the death of the Santa Rosa girl, Miss Leora G. Henderson. They were arrested Friday by the police of San Francisco, who say they have information that Dr. West performed the criminal operation on the young lady that resulted in her death. Dr. S. G. Boyd, who is wanted by the police in this matter, did not show up at his office yesterday. Peritonitis followed the girl’s criminal operation and that was the cause of her death.
John Henderson, the girl’s father, when asked about his daughter in San Francisco, stated that he neither knew of the girl’s condition, nor of her presence in San Francisco.– Santa Rosa Republican, October 23, 1909WEST FACES MURDER CHARGEBelieved Responsible for Death of Girl
The police of San Francisco are convinced that Dr. E. F. West of 115 McAllister street, performed the operation that resulted in the death of 18 year old Leora Henderson of this city at St. Thomas’ Hospital on Thursday morning. West is in the city prison and will probably be charged with murder after the coroner’s inquest.
West steadfastly denies that he was connected with the case and declares that he never saw the girl, but the statement to the police of Dr. Winifred Byrne of 894 Eddy street, and Dr. Samuel G. Boyd of 1334 Van Ness avenue contradict his assertions.
Dr. Winifred Byrne, who was questioned by the detectives Friday evening and later placed in custody at the city prison, was released Saturday morning. The police are assured that she was in no way criminally connected with the girl’s death.
In a written statement made by Dr. Byrne Saturday she said that the girl told her a few days after she visited her office on Eddy street that she had been operated on by Dr. West the first day she arrived in San Francisco and that he had advised her to go to Dr. Byrne’s place for care, and if she became worse to go to St. Thomas’ hospital, where Dr. Boyd would attend her.
Dr. Boyd arrived yesterday from Redwood City, where he had been called to perform an operation. He told the police that Dr. West called him up several days before the girl’s death and said he had a patient whom he would sent to St. Thomas’s hospital and wished he, Dr. Boyd, would attend her. Dr. Boyd was busy and forgot about the girl and did not, in fact, at any time see or attend her.– Santa Rosa Republican, October 25, 1909